Daniel Fusco: The Unlikely Megachurch Pastor—Part 1

Daniel Fusco is lead pastor of Crossroads Church in Vancouver, Washington, and author of several books, including Honestly: Getting Real About Jesus and Our Messy Lives (NavPress, 2016) and Upward, Inward, Outward: Love God, Love Yourself, Love Others (NavPress, 2017).

At first glance Daniel strikes one as an unusual fit in a suburban megachurch. His long, dreadlocked hair and penchant for dropping obscure jazz references seem out of keeping with the clean-cut image most have for the pastor of a large church. But with Sunday attendance at Crossroads at about 4,000—not counting weekly viewing of their services online (averaging about 15,000 worldwide)—he is leading his large congregation into a new season of their 40-plus year history, reaching their community with creativity and a spirit of both intentionality and improvisation.

With some avant-garde ‘70s “loft jazz” playing in the background, Daniel and I sat down over strong coffee to discuss his story, fresh perspectives on how to lead past the false “either/or” choices of ministry, and why our work always comes back to the baptisms.

Let’s start with the back story. What’s your background?

New Jersey, born and raised. We were all-Italian, culturally Catholic and loud. Sunday night dinners roared with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and people who were aunts and uncles—just not by blood. I have great parents, a twin sister and one older sister. So, tons of love and an amazing family unit. Faith really played no part in our lives, though. I’d say we were non-Christian Catholic. Growing up, I had lots of diversity in friendships, which happens when you grow up 40 minutes outside New York. Every tribe, nation and tongue was hanging out together, and for us that was normal.

I was a wild kid. Played music and sports, partied like crazy. By the time I went to college at Rutgers, I looked around and started to realize that people were getting spiritual, and I thought, “Well, since everyone is spiritual, I’m not spiritual.” Mostly to be contrary.

What do you mean, “getting spiritual”?

I saw friends go into that searching phase of college—reading up on Buddhism, arguing through World Religions 101. My first response was “Man, I’m not spiritual. I’m just human.” I liked getting high, casual relationships with girls, jazz. Then my mom got cancer. That marked the beginning of my own search.

A couple friends who’d become followers of Jesus started to talk to me. I took a philosophy class, which was eye-opening. And I started asking questions. I realized that the philosopher’s question is always “Why?” Everything begins with why. But I had been such an in-the-moment kind of person, I’d never stopped to ask it. My life was all what questions: “What are we going to do next?” “What’s for dinner?” “What’s fun?”

“Why?” began to get traction, and my own searching started. An important step came in a Religions of the Western World class. The professor was clergy—a “reverend doctor”—but it seemed like his goal was undermining faith in Jesus. I started to challenge him, thinking, You’re a pastor, but you really don’t like Jesus very much!

I always felt that the best musicians are divisive: People either love or hate their work. Great artists draw a line, and you’re either on one side or the other. I saw that there must be something about Jesus I didn’t know about.

The big break came in my junior year. I had a professor who I realize now was a born-again believer. He was just different. There was a kindness to him along with a real humanity. He connected with people. In those days, I had a habit of oversleeping through exams, then, because I’m socially graced, talking my way into making them up later.

When I did that in his class, something new happened. He said yes, but then followed it up: “Can I ask a question?” he said. “You always look high, you show up to class regularly, but late. You seem bored, but then you’re getting A’s on papers, and even though you oversleep your exams, you tend to ace them. What’s your story?” I was there to schmooze him. He was asking who I was.

During this conversation, he asked, “What do you like to read?” And I started talking—Buddhism, Hare Krishna literature (I hung out with them for the free vegetarian meals), stories about ayahuasca vision quests and stuff like that.

“Have you ever thought about Jesus.”
“Well, yeah. But no.”
“Do you believe Jesus was a spiritual teacher?”
“Yeah! I mean some people do.”
“Do you believe the Bible is a spiritual book?”
“Uhhh … yeah?”
“Then I don’t think you’re being an intellectually honest seeker unless you read it.”

Pow. He was right. That was how I started reading the Bible. A year later, while reading Matthew, Jesus revealed himself to me in a really personal way. This was April 1998. I had graduated college and was pursuing a career in music, reading the Bible, growing in my faith and seeking the Lord. And as I connected more to church, I felt called to ministry.

Then things moved quickly. Before Crossroads, my ministry history looks like this: apprenticing for ministry in California’s Bay Area, returning to New Jersey to plant a church, then moving back to the Bay Area to plant two churches simultaneously. After that, I was invited to come to Crossroads.

Describe Crossroads. What was the church you came to?

Crossroads was founded in October of ’75, two months before I was born. It’s a first-generation megachurch. They had 350 people on the first day and almost 1,000 people by the end of their first year. From a growth perspective, it had plateaued in the early 2000s and was beginning to decline in terms of attendance.

When I arrived, it was still very large. Bill Ritchie, the founding pastor, is an extraordinary teacher, worship was great and the Sunday experience was remarkable. Bill had been on the radio in this area for 30 years, and his teaching ministry was incredible. But other aspects of the church’s ministry, particularly discipleship, were sagging, and it felt like the church was declining.

A church will always eventually revert to the size it can sustain. Structurally speaking, for Crossroads to support the size that it had achieved, it needed its infrastructure to be overhauled with an eye toward making a bunch of new converts—not just drawing Christians from other churches—and discipling them. I worked to relay the foundation in the first three years, mostly overhauling infrastructure.

As a church planter you put a culture in place. But inheriting a church that had been planted 40 years before, you don’t have a clean slate. A good visual example was the church’s employee manual. It was huge. Instead of being rewritten, staff had added addendum after addendum, until it was about the size of a dictionary. It didn’t need more addendums, it needed a revision.

So we reset nearly everything. We asked basic questions: Is everything where it’s supposed to be? Are people in areas of giftings and passions? Are this generation’s needs being met?

OK. But what convinced you Crossroads was a personal fit? You’re a jazz musician/dreadlocked church planter. This is a suburban megachurch. It seems a little like a buccaneer signing on to captain a cruise ship.

When I was in the Bay area, I started two churches at the same time. I didn’t want to multisite them, because one was in Marin County and the other was in San Francisco. Those are not the same. I couldn’t pretend they were. When I was ready to turn those over for a new chapter of ministry, I felt that God was saying, Daniel, I want you to walk by faith. I assumed that meant planting another church because that’s what I knew. I’d planted three and coached lots of people.

So when Bill reached out to me, my first thought was exactly that: I’m not a megachurch pastor. There’s a way most pastors of large churches are. I know I’m not that guy. They seem like regal statesmen. I feel like the regal statesman’s crazy nephew who everybody hopes doesn’t get arrested. [Laughs]

But I realized that planting a church wasn’t a step of faith for me anymore, it was a step of sight. I was good at it. I liked it. My family was geared for it. God wanted to put me in a place where I had to rely on him. I began to seriously consider the invitation. At one point, one of my good buddies offered his opinion. “Don’t do it,” he said. “They’re going to hate you.” Another friend said, “Man, they invented the interim pastor role for whoever succeeds Bill Ritchie at Crossroads.” Bill even wanted to stay at the church after the transition. So not only would I be the guy coming after the hugely successful founding pastor of 40 years, the founding pastor stays as part of the church? It was all so insane. But I was like, That sounds awesome. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

Honestly, I was tired of hearing how these transitions and successions always fail. And my generation needs to learn how to do it well. I started thinking, Maybe I can be part of a transition that works.

It all added up, and I said “Yes.”

From the outside, it seems like the succession was a resounding success.

It was extraordinary. What God did was miraculous. We actually grew in the transition.

When we designed the transition, we designed it to not kill a great church. But what we didn’t realize was that God wanted to reach a whole new set of people right away. Sure, some people left—they weren’t going to let “the dreadlock guy” be their pastor. But others poured in. So many people started coming. The unchurched. The dechurched. People who’d grow up at Crossroads, had gotten away from the Lord, but heard from parents or grandparents: “You should come check out Crossroads, we have a new pastor.” People got saved, rededicated their lives to Jesus. The older generation here often was unsure about what we were doing, but they couldn’t argue with the fact that God was working, that they were sitting in the pews with their grandkids and seeing them get excited about the Bible. In five years, we’ve almost doubled in size. Praise God.

What’s one must-say thing about succession you’d share?

Seventy-five percent of the success of the succession is in the hands of the outgoing pastor. They’re the ones with buy-in. I am so grateful—God had given Bill a vision and Bill was committed to it. He even told me, “My legacy as a pastor is tied to how well we do this.”

Bill and I made a commitment: We were going to guard our relationship above all. We agreed that, like a married couple, we’d disagree in private and stand together in public. By and large, we did that. There were times when things were choppy: We’re both Type-A leaders. I’m younger than his youngest child and so have different perspectives. I’ll never have the longevity or the history here that he has had. I have made some decisions he told me would never work. Sometimes he was right. I never felt I was supposed to replace Bill. I felt my job was to honor him.

In Part 2 of this interview, Daniel Fusco talks about rejecting false dichotomies in ministry, how Christian ministry is like jazz, what he wants his last sermon to be and how to truly reach lost people.

Learn more about Daniel Fusco’s book Upward, Inward, Outward »
Read an excerpt from Daniel Fusco’s book Upward, Inward, Outward »

Daniel Fusco is lead pastor of Crossroads Church in Vancouver, Washington, and author of several books, including Honestly: Getting Real About Jesus and Our Messy Lives (NavPress, 2016) and Upward, Inward, Outward: Love God, Love Yourself, Love Others (NavPress, 2017).

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach, and author of multiple books on spiritual formation, including The Listening Day series of devotionals (Zeal Books). Instagram: @PaulJPastor. Website: PaulJPastor.com.

For more: CrossroadsChurch.net, DanielFusco.com, @DanielFusco